|March 29, 2002
Focus on food shortages
Swaziland's current need for unprecedented levels of food aid is rooted in
outmoded land usage and a lack of a national population policy, social
scientists and aid workers told IRIN in the end of March.
For the first time, Swaziland may be forced to seek relief from the UN's
World Food Programme (WFP) said Noah Nkambule, the principal secretary for
the ministry of agriculture. WFP is planning an assessment mission to
determine the number of people in need, while the National Disaster Relief
Task Force expects to import 300,000 mt of grain this year - a record - to
Despite living in a fertile land well watered by numerous rivers, 80 percent
of Swazis exist as peasant farmers under chiefs on smallholdings where
subsistence crops depend on rainfall.
The proximate cause for the current food crisis in Swaziland is a mid-summer
drought that withered maize plants at a critical time of their growth. But
the ultimate cause is land mismanagement and a rising population that has
put greater demand on limited food supplies. Annual food shortages are
normal, but factors like this year's regional shortage of maize, the staple
food, can turn a food crisis into a calamity unless foreign food assistance
This month, the Africa Development Bank and other international lending
organisations extended nearly US $40 million in loans to finance the Lower
Usutu River Development Programme aimed at introducing irrigation to
cooperative schemes. Peasant farmers will combine their small landholdings
into cooperatives to grow crops for the export market.
Some economists hail the initiative as an end to peasant farming and the
start of a class of small businessmen farmers.
"But not business women," noted Doo Apane, national coordinator for the
Swaziland branch of the legal advocacy group Women in Law in Southern
Africa. "Women are legal minors in Swaziland. They cannot own land without
the consent of a male relative, who becomes the front man and essentially
the property's owner, even if the woman pays off a loan through her efforts."
Hand in hand with a lack of legal right to property ownership is women's
lack of reproductive rights. "Culturally, women are required to bear as many
children as possible to work a traditional rural homestead," said Agnes
Kunene, a nurse in Manzini, Swaziland's most populous urban centre. "Instead
of women owning and working land to ease the current food shortage, they are
trapped in a cycle of poverty that comes from having too many children."
While formal polygamy is waning, Swazi men continue to have multiple
girlfriends, who are expected to bear children. "The test of Swazi manhood
continues to be the number of cattle and children a man has," said Apane.
"Until women have family planning rights, overpopulation will continue, and
with it the threat of famine."
Anthropologist Hilda Kuper's studies from the early 20th century showed that
Swazis always experienced a "time of want", usually at spring when the
previous years' food stockpiles had been depleted, and new crops were not
yet mature. But a small population and a strong social support system
A modern Swazi anthropologist, Arthur Mngomezulu, says ways of subsistence
farming have not changed as Swaziland's 1902 population of 85,000 grew more
than tenfold to nearly one million in 2002. The lack of a population policy
to control demand on the nation's resources, and the persistence of peasant
farming that requires large families to manually work the land, has resulted
in the current food crisis, analysts argue.
"For most of the nation's history, Swazis have known a low population
density, and families grew and made what they needed. There was no surplus
and thus no means for society to sustain specialised individuals, like
artists and priests – the family headman conducted family prayers to the
ancestors at home – or a complex governing bureaucracy. The chiefs lived the
same lifestyle as their subjects," said Mngomezulu.
While Swaziland during the colonial and post-colonial period went from low
population density to high, reaching a world-leading 3.6 percent growth rate
in 1990 before the onset of AIDS, life on peasant farms continued as it had
in the 19th century.
Some social observers say the reason is political. "Swaziland is a great
welfare state. Subjects of the king are promised a traditional livelihood in
exchange for allegiance to the monarchy," commented Jan Sithole, secretary
general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions.
"Each Swazi male head of household is given a place to build a homestead,
raise subsistence crops, and graze cattle as long as he obeys his chief and
does not join a political party," said Sithole. "If they join the
pro-democracy movement, they get evicted."
Critics of monarchical government like Sithole say that the palace will not
compromise its hold on its peasantry power base by initiating land reform
that will give peasants title deed to their properties on communal Swazi
Although agriculture minister Roy Fanourakis is pushing for land ownership
to allow farmers to obtain bank loans by using their farms as collateral –
financing that would permit modernisation, and ease the current food crisis
– there is no immediate prospect that this will be done. (IRIN)